Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often start with a good idea and then become successful when they learn to do it well. This often involves tight synergies amongst their early employees, who may have very similar visions, attitudes and specific ways of doing things. Sometimes, these come from a shared background. Perhaps they started out as a family owned business.
SMEs must eventually turn to more innovative ideas as they continue to grow. This is often an area where early success stories can turn quickly into failure, or as a minimum, failure to thrive. Growth challenges can be complex, especially if the SME has saturated their original market.
Raising cultural awareness in an SME can occur in many ways. Hiring employees from a different background to those responsible for the original core business can bring a different perspective to their initial success. For example, employees from diverse backgrounds may be able to see what worked well in the core business but also see missed opportunities and what could have been done better. Broader perspectives such as these may mean the original market isn’t saturated after all, but defined in a narrow way. Diversity allowed the organization to see the true total market.
Additionally, employees from diverse backgrounds may also be in a position to understand how to open up entirely new markets, building on the core business that the original employees may not have considered or understood. Addressing these markets may require new skills, which may range from language to understanding different purchasing motivations in various customer groups. They may also be able to leverage markets empathetic to their own backgrounds, such as someone from an ethnic minority who has maintained family connections from their original country of origin.
Raising cultural awareness can be achieved in many ways. Variation in employee background should not be considered purely as diversity of ethnicities or nationalities, although these can be part of the equation. Gender, sexual orientation and disability should also be considered sources of additional cultural values, even in very small companies and can introduce innovation, both in the SME’s core business as well as spawning ideas for appealing to new demographics.
For example, ignoring gender could mean that you have just written off up to 50% of your total available market. Sometimes, these mistakes can be made simply by implementing a poorly worded marketing campaign. Other organizations make assumptions that their product or service would only appeal to a specific gender whereas the reality may be very different. It is also important to keep in mind that gender roles and expectations may vary substantially from market to market and may be more pronounced in some markets abroad.
Nor should generational differences be ignored. Many experienced employees may have accepted the tools of technology but may never have grown completely comfortable using an ever changing array of gadgets, software programmes and a reluctant acceptance of enforced office enhancements.
Younger, more flexible employees are much more likely to be comfortable with quickly evolving technology and, more importantly, can see and enable a fuller extent of their benefits to the SME and their employees. Their value may be widespread, from streamlining processes to facilitating research across new markets. Younger employees may also have much more experience in understanding how technology appeals and is used across various cultures, thus possibly opening entirely new gateways to doing business in more innovative ways.
For example, many older employees may dismiss the commercial value of social networking websites. However, many younger employees use them for many reasons, including gaining information that can be used to decide on whether or not to use a product or service. SMEs in particular can profit from utilizing social networking websites as they are also generally very cost effective – especially if you have enlisted the skills of a young employee who understands the wider impact of social media on your targeted market.
Different work experience can also bring in different knowledge on how to do things more efficiently and effectively. Whether it’s an innovative idea for an enhanced product or a more effective control of financial practices that directly contribute to the bottom line, different corporate cultures and the benefits of hiring people from these different backgrounds are often overlooked.
Well run SMEs that prioritize cultural diversity may be positioning themselves favorably for the time when they may no longer be so small. If and when the time comes to expand their marketplace across new cultural horizons, they will have their corporate mindset in place from which to continue to develop their employee talent. Employees who are culturally aware in their small or medium organization have probably already developed many of the necessary best practices to take their business to the next steps, including to a wider, even more diverse global market.
(About the Author: Declan Mulkeen is Marketing Director at Communicaid a culture and business communication skills consultancy which provides cultural awareness training.)
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